Fully half of the Class of 2006 at Lew Wallace High School, in the Rust Belt city of Gary, Indiana, graduated despite flunking the state’s Graduation Qualifying Exam repeatedly, which they are supposed to pass to graduate. Students had had five chances to pass, but the school ushered them out into the “real world” anyway.
The school was hardly an exception to some Iron Law that students don’t pass if they don’t pass the test. Five percent of the state’s graduates in 2006 donned cap-and-gown without ever passing the GQE. At 52 high schools, at least 10 percent of graduating seniors repeatedly flunked it.
Nor is this only an Indiana phenomenon. Most states grant numerous opportunities and loopholes for schools to send students onto college and into the workforce without adequate academic preparation.
The evidence (which we’ll get to shortly) contradicts the rhetoric of critics of these and other forms of standardized exams. It also shows that the standards and accountability movement that championed the No Child Left Behind Act is still struggling to sell parents and politicians on the long-term value of standardized tests, strict curriculum standards, and real consequences.
The standards struggle is as much about control over the nation’s public schools as it is about learning. For reform-minded advocates, change-oriented urban school superintendents, business leaders, and a few civil rights groups such as the National Council of La Raza, exit exams advance their agenda by exposing the shoddy instruction given to children — especially minorities and the poor — by school districts.
For teachers unions and suburban school districts, the tests threaten to reduce their influence over school curricula and subject them to the kind of objective performance measurements that they loathe.
So the teachers and bureaucrats are making hay over the supposedly dire consequences students face if they don’t pass. Their sob story goes, in this new era of high-stakes testing, kids, especially those suffering from learning disabilities such as autism, will either eventually drop out of school or be “pushed out” by school districts attempting to game the system.
IN REALITY, THE PROBLEM slices the other way. States with exit exams make it too easy for students to graduate without passing the tests. Just eight of the 26 states currently offering or rolling out exit exams require students to actually pass the tests in order to graduate, according to a report released last month by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based centrist think tank.
Three states — Indiana, Georgia, and New Mexico — allow schools to grant waivers to students who somehow demonstrate through such alternatives as portfolios of class work or letters of recommendation from teachers that they “deserve” to graduate, despite the pervasiveness of social promotion. Other states also allow portfolios to substitute for passing scores; 11.5 percent of New Jersey’s high school seniors graduated this way last year.
Even better, seven states, including New York, allow frequent flunkies to submit scores from a variety of tests, including the SAT and end-of-course exams given for Advanced Placement courses, as substitutes for the exit exams. That amounts to an automatic pass, because none of these tests results are measured against minimum state standards.
Far from being “pushed out,” special-ed students and those with limited English skills can avoid the tests. Federal law allows states to exempt the most developmentally-disabled students from regular exit exams. States can also exempt those with limited English fluency if they have been enrolled in an American school for less than a full school year.
Many states make it easier for special-ed students taught under so-called Individualized Learning Plans to either pass with lower scores or skip the exams. The problem, as pointed out by Erin Dillon of the Education Sector, is that most learning-disabled students are capable of learning at the same level as their regular counterparts, and are thus being ill served by the exemption.
EVEN THOSE STUDENTS who take and pass the test are meeting an absurdly low minimum. The tests rarely cover all that is taught in high school. Most graduation tests are first taken by students during their sophomore year and are only aligned with 10th grade standards.
In some states, standards are dumber still. The math portion of Indiana’s GQE covers just one high school-level math course — Algebra 1; eighth grade math accounts for the rest of the questions on the test. Sixth and 7th grade math questions account for most of California’s exam.
The opposition to rigorous standards from parents, especially those in suburban districts, is one reason why the tests are anything but high stakes. Parents may not necessarily object to their children being tested — in the abstract. However, practically speaking, mom and dad don’t want to bear the costs of these exams, most notably in flunked tests that expose the shoddiness of the education that their children receive. Their pressure, along with that from the education establishment, leads state officials to water down the tests or create loopholes. In Maryland, the state board of education recently voted to allow students who fail the exam twice to instead complete a nebulous “project.”
Educational reformers may find this push-back over standards to be depressing beyond words. If there’s a silver lining in this, it’s that the hue and cry over even minimal, loophole heavy standards, is helping to bolster the reformers’ case for just how far public education has fallen.
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